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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah QB Conner Manning escapes the pocket and the rush of DE Pita Taumoepenu during Utah football practice at Rice Eccles Stadium, Saturday, March 22, 2014.
Utah football: Pita Taumoepenu is learning quickly
Utah football » Defensive end Taumoepenu’s skills translate well from rugby to football.
First Published Aug 15 2014 02:48 pm • Last Updated Aug 17 2014 04:08 pm

With bulging muscles packed onto his 6-foot-1 frame and a shock of electric yellow through the middle of his dark hair, Pita Taumoepenu can cut an intimidating image.

But spend a few minutes, and inevitably he’ll laugh. It’s a loud, carefree and disarming guffaw that has the power to put anyone in its range at ease.

At a glance

About Pita Taumoepenu

» Immigrated from Tonga at 17, was a seasoned rugby player.

»  First played organized football as a senior at Timpview High.

»  Racked up state-record 25 sacks his senior year, made first-team all-state.

»  Had a sack and two tackles for loss as a freshman with the Utes last year.

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Taumoepenu, 20, showed up in the United States just over three years ago, and he only joined the Utes football team in the last year. His English is still … developing, but his laughter communicates something that transcends language barriers, and it quickly endeared him to his teammates.

"Pita’s the crazy one," defensive end Hunter Dimick said. "He’s the one that gets us all hyped."

Even among the colorful personalities on this Utah squad, Taumoepenu stands out. From goofy to excitable, he can breathe life into a position group room or an otherwise serious round of film study.

But he can also play: Among defensive ends, he is the fastest, clocking in with a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. That quickness gives him the ability to dash off the line of scrimmage, and he has explosive power that can catch blockers off guard. Before they blink, he’s chasing down the quarterback.

The Utes are testing out Taumoepenu at linebacker, a position where they believe he’ll have a bright future. Only in his third year of playing football, many think he’ll be a great player.

He just needs time.

"Instead of go home and play video games and, I should get in my notebook and film and stuff, pretty much learning plays and assignments," he said. "I’m learning a lot."

He’s come a long way since Cary Whittingham, Timpview football coach and brother of Utes coach Kyle Whittingham, first spotted him in gym class. He saw a natural athlete, and he heard Taumoepenu was a rugby player in Tonga, where he grew up.

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But he had so much to learn — like how to put on shoulder pads.

"He put them on backwards, and guys had to teach him how to put them on properly," Whittingham recalled. "We’re talking about a kid with no experience whatsoever."

Chalk that up to growing in a different country. Taumoepenu was born in Euless, Texas, but moved to Tonga with his grandparents to experience Polynesian culture, he said. He was a rugby prodigy, playing several back positions in the game growing up.

When he was about 16, he had an opportunity to join the U-20 national team. But his mother, he said, wanted him to go to college, so she sent him to the United States. When he learned he could earn a college scholarship playing football, rugby’s American cousin, he leapt at the chance.

But when it came to playing in helmets and pads, he was not so thrilled.

"I was like, ‘Oh, this stuff is too heavy,’" he said. "The coaches told me to walk around the field and get used to it. People laughed at me, but I just kept walking."

The game itself was also difficult to learn at times. Whittingham saw Taumoepenu had a knack for chasing down the quarterback, so he put him at defensive end. In one of his first JV games, Taumoepenu slammed a quarterback to the ground two seconds after he threw the ball, unaware that was a penalty.

But once he got in a rhythm, Taumoepenu was fearsome: He accumulated 25 sacks in his senior year, his only year playing football, including a sack in overtime that helped Timpview clinch the 4A title in 2012.

"Just every week, no one could stop him," Whittingham said. "He just controlled games."

These days Taumoepenu is working on becoming a more well-rounded player rather than a third-down specialist. The Utes will still bring him in on pass-rushing situations, but they want him to learn coverage and understand more than just his own role in the defensive scheme.

Taumoepenu acknowledges he loves video games more than looking in his playbook, but he has gradually become more invested in becoming a better player.

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